The season of frenzy is upon us. It formally opened with Thanksgiving and its ancient battles over creamed onions. Then it slams a week from now into that eight-day festival of a present every night, before storming into Christmas, with all its party-throwing, gift-lavishing and food orgy requirements.
I am a working mother of three children. And I have begun to spin like my electric meter when all the appliances and the central air are running. Already a horrifying refrain has taken up residence in my brain, a fragment of the tune of Mambo No. 5, ". . .a little Hanukah in my life." (Twice blessed, I have to do both.)
But I have my catalogues, hundreds of them, and they restoreth my soul. They lead me to the life I might be able to achieve, completely organized and free of irritation, even from non-organic cotton. It is a life of utter leisure and zero clutter, gracious and nested and filled with scrubbed children playing hand-fitted wooden board games.
With their soothing ad copy and their seductive pictures, catalogues promise to solve all important problems, not the minor ones like repression of the Falun Gong and the Y2K crisis, but the really major ones, like keeping squirrels out of the birdseed (Outwitting Squirrels, $11.95 from Plow and Hearth). E-commerce has no allure for the catalogue devotee, for it is about acquisition at warp speed. Mail-order, a quaint term for what has become phone order, is about the pleasure of perusal, followed by the warmth of contact with a person in a cubicle in Minnesota and a bonus--a fleeting encounter with a jaunty UPS man, newly enriched by his stock holdings.
For many years, Hold Everything has served as an excellent form of female erotica, served with a dry, full-nosed cabernet. It is best enjoyed in bed, by candlelight, as the rest of the household slumbers. The fantasy offered here is an elegant place for everything, and no crayons on the floor ever. A box just for the wreath! A parade of expensive enameled trash cans, in three sizes and five colors! A wicker basket to sit on the back of the toilet, to be used only for storing spare rolls of toilet paper! A galvanized Italian-made rack to hold all the rakes and brooms in the shed! This is a version of life that I have only seen in my parents' gated community in Florida, where retirees leave open their garage doors to show off their immaculate storage. But this doesn't matter. The mind quivers just in anticipation of the satisfaction.
Lately, Hold Everything seems almost too minimal, and the best Zeitgeist catalogue of the moment is Sporty's Preferred Living. Now, Sporty really has it down. He's figured out what all the things are that could bug you, and he's fixed them.
"Let 33 pounds of cast iron hold your Christmas tree," touts Sporty, knowing that such a thing ought to take care of that classic nightmare. Isn't it worth $99.95 never to have the tree come crashing down again?
"Eat, read or work and never get out of bed," declares Sporty. Who wouldn't rush to embrace that? Unfortunately, the product that produces this remarkable lifestyle is quite old-tech, just a beechwood lap table. For my $85, I'd want a silent butler for cleaning up the crackers in the sheets.
And Sporty can be so intriguing! "Gentleman's Stud Box Has a Hand-Rubbed Cherry Finish." What is being sold here? Ah, it's a "bold, masculine bureau-top organizer" with a velvet-lined interior of 11 compartments. And here are six kinds of very well-made floor registers, as if Sporty had looked into my home and seen how rusted and gritty the cheapo aluminum ones were.
Like any excellent marketer, Sporty is aware of problems that you didn't even know you had, and who can fail to respond to a man like that? Shoe problems, for instance. With the products in this catalogue, one can correct shoes that want to get up and walk away during their shining--with the metal wall bracket that holds the shoe fixed--and soggy shoes--with the electric shoe dryer, a sort of fake leg mounted upside down, with heat radiating through it.
Catalogues are aggressive, thrusting themselves into your vestibule and demanding attention. Web sites are passive, waiting in cyberspace for the consumer to enter them. Despite all the e-citement over e-commerce, this is why mail order continues to dominate.
This year, industry analysts predict sales to top $93 billion, with the last three months of 1999 generating a third of that revenue. Williams-Sonoma Inc., which sells to the kitchen, home and garden through its catalogues Williams-Sonoma, Hold Everything, Pottery Barn and Chambers and its stores, saw a huge spike in revenues from its launch of Pottery Barn Kids, a collection of youth furnishings available only by catalogue. Eddie Bauer and Spiegel are up; so is Lands' End, which currently is publishing writers' letters on the end of the millennium there amid the cashmere sweaters and rugby shirts.
The glossies that do it best of all hold their target customers helpless in their grip. For every harried working mother longing to crawl inside a container from the Container Store, there is a man who wants to be a man's man accessorizing his 50-gallon caulk bucket with a fat canvas apron from Duluth Trading Co. There is a 13-year-old girl dying for zoo board pants from Delia's, where the copywriters are so dead on about their market they drop imaginary quotes onto the page, as if it were "Reviving Ophelia:" "I wish I could do what I wanted. I wish I knew what I wanted."
Duluth is the place to get in touch with your inner butch, the one who wants to strap on a macho drill holster. "When loaded, a drill can be sharp against your leg, so we added a special padded extension," according to the catalogue. You can have a deluxe jumper cable bag or Leatherface, described as "one tough mother scratcher of a knee pad." And the occidental tool belt suspension system looks very much like an autoerotic device from a porn film, proving that making catalogues sexy for men is quite a different science from making them sexy for women.
Sometimes, the pleasure is in the sheer ridiculousness of the object. At Hammacher Schlemmer, you can buy an authentic Chinese rickshaw that "took over 120 hours to construct and assemble," for $7,499 (add $350 shipping and handling for in-home delivery). I hope to see someone jogging down a graceful street in Chevy Chase pulling a tot in one, the yuppiest of the running strollers. The remote-controlled B2 Stealth Bomber is a toy that even a techno-Quaker could love, but for $399.95 I'll take jewelry. Sporty (him again!) has a golf green that floats in your pool, in case the challenge of the blue course at Congressional Country Club isn't enough, a bargain at $69.95.
No, what I really want is the Hold Everything solid beech sliding-hook rack, because I know if only I buy and mount this on my wall, my children will never throw their hats, coats and book bags on the foyer floor again.
I want the Solutions automated coin-sort system, because the bank won't take the 47 pounds of loose change I found in the sofa without it all being in wrappers. I want the cast-iron hedgehog boot cleaner, because then mud will never migrate onto my carpets again.
I don't need the Lucite magazine holders. Those I already have. My house is chaos and my calendar a spider web of swim meets, school events, to-do lists galore. But the catalogues--ah, they're obsessively organized by category. That way, when I need a fix, I can get it right away.
CAPTION: Industry analysts predict catalogue sales will top $93 billion, with the last three months of 1999 generating a third of that revenue.
CAPTION: From Hong Kong to home: A Hammacher Schlemmer rickshaw for $7,499.
CAPTION: A drill holster from the Duluth Trading Co. is available for the right- or left-handed do-it-yourselfers.